Top 10 Free US Museums

Whether you're looking for ancient artifacts or colorful paintings, the best things in life certainly are free at these museums.

By: Jennifer Plum Auvil

Whether you're looking for ancient artifacts or colorful paintings, the best things in life certainly are free at the country's best no-fee museums.

1. Smithsonian Museums, Washington, DC

The Smithsonian has the distinction of being the world's largest museum complex, with more than a dozen free museums in Washington, DC, alone. Many of them are located around the National Mall, including the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum and the Natural History Museum. The National Museum of the American Indian has a companion museum in New York City that is also free of charge. The collections in each of the Smithsonian's museums are so vast that it's impossible to narrow down the greatest hits or appreciate the full array of artistic wonders in just 1 trip. But with no charge, you can head back as many times as you like without putting a dent in your bank account.

2. Getty Center, Los Angeles

The Getty Center may be one of LA's best — and cheapest — date spots, because just about everything is free. In addition to free admission, visitors can check out special exhibits, gallery talks and even curator-led tours for no additional fee. The museum stays open until 9 on Saturday nights, and parking is reduced to $10 after 5 p.m. The cool modern architecture, expansive city views and labyrinthine gardens are just as impressive as the inside exhibits of Western art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photos, illuminated manuscripts and decorative arts by European and American artists.

The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago is the country's largest Latino cultural organization and features a range of exhibits depicting rich Mexican culture, both in the States and south of the border. Visitors can enjoy more than 6,000 pieces in the permanent exhibits, including folk art such as Day of the Dead masks, woven and embroidered indigenous clothing, photographs, prints, drawings and paintings. Traveling exhibits on subjects including Mexican muralists, female artists and silkscreen monoprints often make a first stop here before hitting the road to spread an understanding of Mexican culture across more borders.

4. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Uncover a treasure trove of art from around the globe, including ancient Greek sculptures and Roman sarcophagi, paintings by the old masters and fabulous art-deco jewelry. Located in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, the Walters is just the right size for a day trip. Bring the kids along, too, as this family-friendly museum has free loaner strollers to explore the museum in comfort, as well as a family activity center where young guests can read some art books, stage a medieval puppet show or create a masterpiece at weekend drop-in art sessions.

Walters Art Gallery

Walters Art Gallery

Once the private collection of a wealthy Baltimore tycoon and later his son, this collection of art spans 55 centuries, with works from around the world. Treasures include Egyptian mummy masks, Art Deco jewelry and 19th-century French Impressionist paintings.

Photo by: Vox Efx, flickr

Vox Efx, flickr

The Museum of Contemporary Photography is a free museum on the campus of Columbia College Chicago. Since 1984, it has been the leading photography museum in the Midwest, with a strong focus on offering students, educators and researchers a space to explore contemporary photography. Thought-provoking exhibits expose visitors to cutting-edge photos and explore how technology is changing the field.

6. Frye Art Museum, Seattle

The Frye Art Museum has been carrying on the legacy of its founders and bringing free art to the larger Seattle community since 1952. In addition to the free exhibits at the museum, visitors can participate in art talks with curators and educators, 1-hour interactive guided tours and documentary film screenings. 

The founders of the Cleveland Museum of Art set the standard high when they established the mission in 1913 to make the museum "for the benefit of all the people forever." You'll find rooms devoted to contemporary art, American and European painters, African art, ancient works and medieval treasures. Free daily tours help focus your attention on specific galleries and offer in-depth insight into the museum's artistic riches. The annual Parade the Circle event, held each June, is another of the museum's free community art ventures. It's a kaleidoscope of color and energy, including spectacular costumes, skilled stilt walkers, giant puppets and artistic floats that promenade around University Circle.

8. The Alamo, San Antonio

You may only remember the Alamo from elementary school social-studies lessons, but it's easy to refresh your memory on a free visit to this San Antonio icon. Join the 2.5 million other visitors who head to this complex each year to celebrate a slice of history. There are 4 buildings on the premises: the Shrine, the Long Barrack, the Gift Shop/Museum and Alamo Hall. Among them are exhibits on the history of Texas and the Alamo's role in the Texas Revolution.

Treasure at the Alamo
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Fashionistas can study the culture of fashion and maybe even pick up some tips from our fashionable predecessors at the free museum at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology, or FIT. There are 3 exhibition galleries, which feature visiting exhibitions and a rotating selection of the museum's permanent collection. The Fashion and Textile History Gallery changes every 6 months to offer a retrospective on the history of fashion. In addition to the exhibits, there are often free lectures, panel discussions and tours focusing on fashion and style.

The Baltimore Museum of Art has come a long way since it was founded in 1914 with just 1 painting. Today, there are more than 90,000 works of art in the collection, and the museum invites visitors to check them out for free. Art fanatics are thrilled by the collection of Matisse works, the largest in the world, as well as masterpieces from beloved artists including Picasso, Cézanne, van Gogh and Warhol. After exploring the galleries, take a stroll through the outdoor sculpture gardens, which are tucked into a park in the city's Charles Village neighborhood, adjacent to Johns Hopkins University.

MORE: Don't Miss These Museums in Charleston, South Carolina

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